Monday, August 5, 2019

A Widow's Companion

There’s a cute little two-bedroom brick bungalow beside my house, the kind that would be perfect for an older retired couple.

But it’s not. It was a bungalow built for one.

The sweet lady who lives there is also a widow. Slightly over five feet, with dark hair and glasses, she could pass for my mother. Although, ironically, I have more grey hair than either one of them does.

We hit it off right away, her and I. The older and younger widow, bonded by a commonality we both wish we didn’t have.

Her diminutive stature belies an indomitable spirit that even the biggest, burliest man would envy. That I envy.

The last decade has not been kind to her. She nursed her husband through a long, difficult illness only to have him die shortly after he had seemingly recovered.

Her children long grown, she was left alone with two furry friends her husband had insisted on adopting against her protests. She found herself surprisingly grateful for their companionship, until they too both died, one and then the other, leaving her completely alone. She misses them fiercely.

I often hear her out in my front yard talking to my dog Ginny as she lies in the sun. I watch them through the window, and my heart melts. Their conversations seem so intensely personal, I’m loath to interrupt. I let them have their time before I go see if she needs help with anything. The answer, of course, is no.

It’s always no.

“Thank you for asking, but I’m good.”

We both know this is a lie. She is far from good.

She leans heavily on her cane as she slowly and painstakingly makes her way across the un-landscaped space between our houses. I want to take her arm to make sure she doesn’t stumble. I take a step toward her but stop myself. Instead, I hold my breath until she reaches for the post on her landing and climbs the steps to her front door.

In one of life’s cruel twists, she was diagnosed with cancer after her husband died. Chemo, radiation, surgery. She’s done it all, without a partner to support her. One bout with cancer was followed by another, this time in her bones.

It seems like she’s spent more time in the hospital than she has at home over the past six months. I’ve woken up several times in the middle of the night to see the flashing lights of an ambulance in front of her house. Each time I wonder if she will be coming home again. I tell her to call me the next time so she isn’t waiting alone. But she never does.

She’s fallen several times. Her son got her an alert necklace after the last late-night ambulance ride. She’s relieved to have it, to ease his mind if nothing else. But she also resents it, this tangible symbol of her gradual loss of independence.

She’s so determined to keep going.

“You have to keep going, Monica. You can’t stop.”

And so she goes.

Every day I see her walking slowly to her car. Off to Walmart or Michael’s, or sometimes even the local pub. She tells me I’d love their fish and chips.

“They’re pretty good, even for a fish snob.”

She already knows me so well.

Often she is out watering the flowers and plants she has in multiple pots on her front step. I can hear humming and talking to herself as she works.

Her only concession: last week they paved her driveway. The only spot to park was down across the street, too far even for her stubbornness. And so she relented and parked in mine.

I pull into the driveway just after her. She’d spent the day in the emergency room. Again. Her hands and feet both covered in blisters, a reaction to her latest round of chemo. They’ve stopped chemo temporarily for her to heal.

“But what happens when I start chemo again?”

Tears glisten in her eyes and her voice cracks a bit. She struggles to regain her composure. It’s the first time I’ve seen her show emotion.

I try to swallow my own.

We’d literally just returned from a few days playing tourist in Montreal. The bottoms of my feet were blistered from rubbing on my sandals in the heat. I feel small for whining about them.

I ask her if she would like some help, but I know before I even ask what her answer will be.
She turns and hobbles down the sidewalk towards her house.

As I watch her go, I am overcome with sadness. I rail at the unfairness of it all. And I wonder why life has to be so damn hard.

And then fear closes in on me like a thick, dense fog.

Fear, the widow’s companion. Always lurking, waiting to make its presence known.

It is there in the darkness of the night when the house shifts. And in the morning light when the floorboards creak. A sudden noise, a backfired car, a doorbell ringing on a sunny day.

It is always there.

It is never far away.

I do not dwell on my fears. I don’t ever want them to win. I refuse to live in fear. And most of the days, I have fear mastered. I can look it directly in the eyes and send it on its way.

But some days. Some days that battle exhausts me. And fear is not quite so willing to say goodbye.

Today is one of those days.

Today this is my truth:

There are times I am afraid.

Deeply afraid.

Afraid that my children will lose me too.

Afraid of a future alone.

Afraid I will never again find that person who will love me until the end.

Afraid that someday, I will be the widow hobbling home to an empty house on badly blistered feet.

I watch as my dear, lovely neighbour climbs her steps. First one, then another. She stops to catch her breath. And then takes the final steps to her door.

I wait until I know she is safely inside.

I exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding as I unlock my front door, glancing next door one last time.

Keep going Monica, I whisper.

A lone tear escapes my eye and rolls ever so slowly down my cheek.

Just keep going.
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